John Shearer: 75 Years Of The Wizard Of Oz

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 - by John Shearer
1939 advertisement from Chattanooga newspaper
1939 advertisement from Chattanooga newspaper
- photo by John Shearer

Seventy-five years ago Wednesday, Chattanoogans found a cinematic pot of gold under, or at least over, the rainbow.

The reason was that the now-classic movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” was playing at the Tivoli Theatre.

It was not showing for multiple weeks, as might be the case today, but for just four days – from Sunday, Aug. 27, 1939, to Wednesday, Aug. 30. That, of course, was typical for the time.

However, people were evidently still talking about it for a long time.

As Chattanooga News-Free Press reviewer Miriam Rosenbloum wrote afterward, “ ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ – equally familiar to adults and children – reaches the screen in a maze of color that is undoubtedly the most spectacular Technicolor production yet to be released.”

Chattanoogans evidently knew beforehand it was going to be a classic, based on the newspaper ad that said, “Greatest show-world miracle since ‘Snow White’ – a triumph of Technicolor” and “so spectacular it cost as much as ten average pictures.”

When Chattanoogans gathered at the “cool” Tivoli on that Sunday of long ago at 2 p.m., they were able to escape the tough times of the world along with the heat, as they first saw Dorothy portrayed by teenager Judy Garland. Ms. Garland had a local connection, as her father, Frank Gumm, spent his youth in Sewanee and was a talented singer.

Chattanooga moviegoers also first laid their eyes on the brindle Cairn terrier, Toto, and saw Munchkinland.

They also initially saw the feared flying monkeys, and felt their hearts melt from watching the Cowardly Lion receive his from the once-feared Oz in Emerald City.

And, of course, they also heard for the first time that timeless and sentimental song, “Over the Rainbow,” the music of which had been written by Harold Arlen after he was inspired after seeing a rainbow while driving along Sunset Boulevard.

The rainbow-like display of colors in the movie at a time when color was just beginning to become part of Hollywood movies also drew people to it, as Ms. Rosenbloum noted.

Even if the economy and world peace were not so great, 1939 was a grand time for the world of cinema, as film-making technology was developing rapidly. As a result, Chattanoogans saw quite a few good ones at the Tivoli during that time period.

Other theaters in Chattanooga were also doing a booming business in those peak days when less competition existed for entertainment and leisure. The other picture palaces included such downtown theaters as the State, Rialto, Bijou and Cameo, the American, the Rivoli in East Chattanooga, the Park on McCallie Avenue, the Ritz in Rossville and the Riviera in North Chattanooga.

Besides “The Wizard of Oz,” which was based on the 1900 book by Frank Baum, nine other films that played at the Tivoli were nominated for Best Picture in 1939, or “Outstanding Production,” as the category was officially called.

They and the Tivoli showing dates included “Love Affair,” June 1-3, 1939; “Stagecoach,” starring Best Supporting Actor winner Thomas Mitchell, June 8-10; “Dark Victory,” with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, June 11-14; “Wuthering Heights,” July 20-22; the greatly anticipated “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” which starred Best Actor winner Robert Donat and Greer Garson (who came to Chattanooga for a war bond drive in 1942), Aug. 6-9; and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” starring Jimmy Stewart, Dec. 3-6.

Of the other Best Picture nominees, “Gone with the Wind,” “Ninotchka” starring Greta Garbo, and possibly “Of Mice and Men” played at the Tivoli in early 1940.

“Gone with the Wind,” of course, was the most well received in Chattanooga and played for longer than usual at the Tivoli and other theaters. It also dominated the Academy Awards at the Ambassador Hotel’s Coconut Grove after being nominated 13 times.

But for four days in August 1939, Chattanoogans were glad Dorothy was not gone with the wind following the Kansas tornado, but was simply dreaming quite a dream.

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